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Last Updated

16 Dec 2002

Source: Associated Press, June 14, 2002.

Anthrax Cleanup Nearing End

By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The windows and doors are sealed. Gas-making machines and large pipes sprawl in the parking lot. Workers in protective "moon suits" install equipment.

The time is getting near to clean up anthrax from Washington's massive Brentwood postal facility.

The 700,000-square foot facility, which handled most mail for the capital, was shut down after last fall's anthrax-by-mail attacks left two postal workers among the dead (cases 15 and 16) and thousands receiving preventive treatment.

Cleanup contracts were signed May 8, with a goal of getting the work done in 90 days. Thomas Day, postal vice president for engineering, said Wednesday he hopes to stick to that schedule. He is awaiting approval of permit applications filed with federal and city officials.

The Brentwood facility processed an anthrax-filled letter sent to Capitol Hill last fall, but officials were not immediately aware of the extent of the contamination. They initially allowed work to continue there -- even holding a news conference with top managers to try to ease workers' concerns. But the building was soon shuttered and the 2,000 or so workers were switched to other facilities.

"No one goes back in there to work until the facility has been cleaned and is proven to be clean," Day said.

Still, Pat Johnson, president of the American Postal Workers Union local representing the District of Columbia, said workers are concerned about returning to work at Brentwood. "Who wouldn't be?"

The closing caused delays in mail delivery in Washington, though officials say most mail service is back to normal. Mail sent to government offices is being irradiated before delivery.

There were 18 cases of anthrax in last fall's attacks, including 11 cases of the more serious inhalation type. All told, five people died. No arrests have been made despite a $2.5 million reward.

One anthrax-filled letter was addressed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., at his office in the Hart Senate Office Building. A second, addressed to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was processed at Brentwood but never delivered.

Postal officials are looking to the decontamination of Hart -- at a cost of $14 million -- for guidance in cleaning Brentwood, which is much larger.

The Brentwood work, estimated to cost $22 million, will pave the way for the later cleanup of the Trenton, N.J., mail facility, that handled the Daschle and Leahy letters and also was contaminated. The Trenton cleanup is expected to cost $13 million.

There has been one community meeting to discuss the Brentwood cleanup and Day said there will be a second at the end of June.

Postal spokeswoman Debbie Yackley said managers have also held meetings with workers to discuss progress and are keeping them informed through mailings and bulletin boards, and plan a toll-free phone line for updates.

The union's Johnson said postal officials could do a better job keeping workers informed.

Among those particularly concerned are the families of eight workers who have died in the last several months.

At the request of those families the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated the deaths and concluded that none was related to anthrax.

Cleanup work at Brentwood has involved sealing all doors and windows, including more than 100 dock doors and 235 skylights.

All movable items including tubs, trays and rolling equipment in the building have been removed and cleaned using a bleach solution. Surface areas in the building also have been decontaminated with the solution.

Chlorine dioxide gas will be pumped through the building's heating and air condition systems to kill remaining anthrax spores. In addition, Day said, extra pipes and gas emitters are being installed to increase the amount of gas in the building.

Mechanical equipment will be run to assist in air flow and expose all of its parts to the gas.

The gas, which will be made at the site, will remain for 12 hours to 48 hours. The temperature will be kept at least 75 degrees, with 75 percent relative humidity. Monitors will be placed throughout the building to ensure that gas levels of at least 750 parts per million are maintained.

Once the building is clean, the gas will be pumped out and shipped to a disposal company and the building will be aired out and rechecked for safety before being returned to use.

Johnson said the most recent date she had been given for a reopening of the facility was the end of September, "but I think it could be later than that."

The attacks helped push the Postal Service further into the red. The agency lost $1.7 billion last year and is expecting to lose $1.5 billion this fiscal year.

Declining business in the recession was a major factor, but the agency also faced millions in extra transportation and other costs after the terrorist attacks. Congress has approved $675 million to assist the post office in sanitizing government mail.

Postal rates are rising June 30, from 34 cents to 37 cents for a first-class stamp.